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Contributor: Staff at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center
Binge eating is a core diagnostic symptom of eating disorders such as binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. People who struggle with disordered eating may engage in frequent bouts of excessive eating, or binge eating. This is often due to a variety of genetic, emotional, psychological, and environmental factors.
These factors can include a family history of binge-eating disorder or addiction, social norms regarding weight loss and dieting, and negative body image. Researchers have found that dopamine may be linked to binge eating .
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of chronic mental health disorders like eating disorders, dopamine is considered by some to be a major contributor to the development of disordered eating behaviors — especially binge eating. But what exactly is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a messenger that carries chemical signals from a neuron to other cells in the brain. It is associated with cognitive ability, motivation, impulsivity, mood, and many other behavioral and physical functions. Dopamine is also responsible for driving behaviors that result in a desired outcome or reward.
Winning the lottery and using substances like drugs or alcohol are similar to binge eating in that these actions make people feel good in the moment, causing overstimulation in the brain’s reward system. Engaging in such behaviors triggers a huge release of dopamine and makes us routinely perform a specific task that gives us a sense of enjoyment .
Having enough dopamine in your system typically equates to being in a good mood and having plenty of energy to conquer the day. When you have too little dopamine, you may have trouble getting motivated and staying alert. In contrast, getting a rush of dopamine at once can cause strong feelings of euphoria.
Binge eating activates the same dopamine response in the brain’s pleasure and reward center as using illicit substances such as cocaine or alcohol . Much like the way deficits in dopamine levels can result in addiction, having low dopamine function results in stronger cravings for food, which may result in episodes of binge eating .
How Dopamine Relates to Eating Disorders and Addictions
Dopamine also contributes to tolerance. In other words, a person needs to perform an activity more often or take a larger amount of a substance to feel the same effects as when they first performed or used something. However, these repeated actions can disrupt the body’s natural dopamine cycle. So, if a person’s dopamine system isn’t regulated or working properly, they could be at risk for developing an addiction or a mental health condition.
One study found that people who struggle with binge-eating disorder or bulimia often suffer from a substance use disorder . All three conditions share common risk factors, such as being around or exposed to specific foods or substances and experiencing traumatic events during childhood. While addictions and eating disorders vary in terms of severity from one person to another, they also share common symptoms, like having intense cravings for a certain substance or food and feeling a total loss of control despite negative consequences.
This suggests that dopamine theories of substance use disorders from the past 40 years may be applied to binge eating. But more research is needed to determine exactly how dopamine levels and activity relate to binge eating. Fortunately, there are different ways you can manage binge eating and regulate your dopamine levels.
Overcoming Binge Eating
When faced with an intense craving for food, it’s important to have helpful coping strategies [5, 6]. Things you can do to combat binge eating and regulate your dopamine levels and activity include:
- Understand the signs of binge eating. If you struggle with controlling your food intake, whether in times of stress or when you’re not hungry, you may struggle with binge eating. Repeated over a long period of time, binge eating could lead to the development or onset of an eating disorder.
- Remove possible trigger foods. Trigger foods are specific foods that compel a person to overindulge in large quantities of food. The more trigger foods there are lying around, the more likely it is that you’ll binge eat those foods.
- Incorporate more healthy fats and proteins in your diet. Trigger foods are often highly processed and offer little nutritional value. Swapping these with healthier fats and proteins from sources like nuts, eggs, chicken, and avocados can improve the quality of your diet, regulate your dopamine activity, and lower your chances of binge eating.
- Start meditating. The change in consciousness that occurs when practicing meditation techniques, including yoga and deep breathing, may release dopamine. This can leave you feeling energized and less likely to overeat.
- Get enough rest. Sleep deprivation may be correlated with increased episodes of binge eating. What’s more, some studies have shown that getting regular, quality sleep for an average of eight hours a day can help you balance and maintain your brain’s dopamine levels, thus decreasing the frequency of these episodes.
Self-care is no doubt a major component of the healing process when trying to overcome binge eating on your own, but it’s also crucial to understand how dopamine can influence many aspects of your physical and mental well-being. For those who continue to struggle with regular instances of binge eating, professional help may be necessary.
Recognizing that you need more structured support for disordered eating behaviors such as binge eating allows you to address concerns and learn ways to overcome binge eating. By getting the right treatment at a trusted behavioral health treatment center, you can learn to manage your symptoms and look forward to a brighter future.
References Yu, Y., Miller, R., & Groth, S.W. (2022, January 28). A literature review of dopamine in binge eating. Retrieved from https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-022-00531-y.  Healthline. (2019). How Does Dopamine Affect the Body? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/dopamine-effects#low-dopamine-levels.  Wise, R.A. & Robble, M.A. (2021, January). Dopamine and Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-103337?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub++0pubmed.  Becker, D.F. & Grilo, C.M. (2015, February 7). Comorbidity of mood and substance use disorders in patients with binge-eating disorder: Associations with personality disorder and eating disorder pathology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4492840/.  Healthline. (2022). 10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-dopamine#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3.  Watson, S. (2021, July 20). Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/dopamine-the-pathway-to-pleasure.
Montecatini provides comprehensive treatment for women who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health concerns. We provide a full continuum of life-changing care, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also offer a wellness center where clients can build healthier relationships with their bodies through joyful movement.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on August 22, 2022. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 22, 2022